Adversity among both mothers and fathers correlates with self-harm and suicide in children. The more the adversity the parents experience, the more likely self-harm and suicide are.

Adversity among both mothers and fathers correlates with self-harm and suicide in children, a study in Finland has found. The more adversity the parents experience, the more likely self-harm and suicide are among their children.

The links between child self-harm and maternal and paternal adversity are similar. The only difference between mothers and fathers is the prevalence of different kinds of adversity (more substance and alcohol abuse and criminality among fathers, more use of psychotropic medication among mothers).

Moreover, if both parents suffer adversity, the risks of later self-harm for their children are more than additive: three times higher for girls and 2.5 times higher for boys.

Poverty also increases the risk for children. Girls in low-income families who experience parental adversity are three times more likely to self-harm; boys in such families are 2.7 times more likely to self-harm. These children are likely more vulnerable because of the stress poverty places on all family members.

The study found small but statistically significant indications that girls are more sensitive than boys to parental adversity. Experiencing parental or maternal adversity increased the risk of self-harm by girls by 58% and 57%, respectively. Experiencing paternal or maternal adversity increased the risk of self-harm by boys by 35% and 44%, respectively.

The study—the first to look at maternal and paternal adversity separately—involved 155,855 children in Finland. It was derived from a wider study involving 20% of all households in the country. Children born in 1986-98 were followed through their 13th birthday. Parental adversity was measured through administrative data – hospital records, use of prescription medication and criminal records. Child self-harm was measured by hospital admissions and suicide records.

The sample included 685 cases of self-harm (61% girls, 39% boys), 602 hospitalisations (66% girls, 34% boys) and 83 suicides (23% girls, 77% boys). Self-harm tended to start earlier in girls, perhaps because of the earlier onset of puberty.

The authors of the study recommend that particular support be offered to low-income families, where the correlations between parental adversity and child self-harm are greater.

According to earlier research quoted in the paper, in high-income countries, self-harm is quite common among adolescents, with an average lifetime prevalence across studies of around 18%. Suicide is the leading cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds in the European Union.

The results confirm other European studies. Parental adversity has been shown to correlate with child self-harm and suicide, particularly in low-income families. Parental adversity hampers parenting capabilities and increases the risk of maltreatment of children. Mental health problems and health-risky behaviours can also be transmitted across generations through epigenetic inheritance and parental modelling.

Header photo: Steven Depolo. Creative Commons. 

References

 Pitkänen J, Remes H, Aaltonen M & Martikainen P (2019), Experience of maternal and paternal adversities in childhood as determinants of self-harm in adolescences and young adulthood, Journal of Epidemioly & Community Health